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The autoworker strikes that changed America

UAW President Shawn Fain marches with UAW members through downtown Detroit after a rally Friday in support of United Auto Workers members as they strike the Big Three automakers.  (Bill Pugliano/Getty Images )
By Dan Rosenzweig-Ziff Washington Post

The United Auto Workers made history this week by going on strike at all three of Detroit’s big automakers simultaneously for the first time. But autoworkers have been striking for nearly a century at Ford, General Motors and Jeep parent company Stellantis.

For years, autoworker unions targeted strikes at one company to leverage contracts at another. The strikes influenced labor rights across the country, leading to some of the first recognition of unions, higher pay and health-care benefits.

Here’s a look at the effect of previous autoworker strikes.

Ford Hunger March, 1932

After the Great Depression, average wages of Michigan autoworkers dropped by nearly 50% between 1929 and 1932, as thousands of other autoworkers lost their jobs. On March 7, 1932, more than 3,000 people led by the Detroit Unemployed Councils marched to the Ford Rouge Plant in Dearborn, wanting jobs, relief for laid-off workers and improved conditions for current employees.

They were met by police and Ford security, who fired hundreds of rounds at the crowd, killing four protesters and a fifth who later died of injuries sustained that day. The funeral procession for the slain drew an estimated 60,000. The 1932 rally yielded few benefits beyond affecting public opinion, but it paved the way for more demonstrations a few years later.

Flint Sit-Down Strike, 1936-37

Sparked by hundreds of deaths in Michigan auto plants, poor working conditions and low wages, GM workers began the “most significant strike in American labor history,” according to the UAW, on Dec. 30, 1936. Rather than walk out, workers sat down at their stations and stopped working.

Forty-four days later, on Feb. 11, 1937, GM announced a $25 million wage increase and recognized the union, one of the first major victories for unionization in American history. Within a year, UAW membership grew from 30,000 to 500,000 as wages grew by as much as 300%.

River Rouge Sit-Down Strike, 1941

On May 26, 1937, UAW organizer Walter Reuther and other union leaders went to Ford’s River Rouge Plant in Michigan to pass out leaflets that read “Unionism, not Fordism,” a reference to mass manufacturing using assembly lines and unskilled labor that Ford pioneered. They clashed with Ford security guards, who began beating them.

Photojournalists captured the violence, including images of Reuther bloodied and bruised, which helped change the tide of public opinion toward the union. But Ford would still not recognize the UAW.

In 1941, after eight Ford workers were fired for joining the union, River Rouge Plant employees went on strike for 10 days in a show of force. In the culmination of the four-year struggle, Ford recognized the union, the last major automaker to do so.

Post-World War II strike, 1945-46

By 1943, UAW was the country’s largest union. After World War II, when unions had put aside demands to support war efforts, labor saw a revival.

In the 12-month period following the war, more than 5 million workers went on strike. UAW members were part of that movement, with 320,000 GM workers walking out for 113 days near the end of 1945. Their demands: A 30% pay increase and a pledge from the automaker not to increase car prices, a radical demand intended to prevent GM managers from offloading the cost of higher wages onto consumers.

GM settled with the union for a roughly 18% increase but refused to consider its other requests.

Chrysler Strike and ‘The Treaty of Detroit,’ 1950

In 1950, UAW president Walter Reuther launched a strike against Chrysler after the manufacturer refused to fully fund a demanded pension plan. In the 104 days of the strike, Chrysler lost $1 billion in sales.

GM, hoping to avoid Chrysler’s fate, negotiated a five-year contract soon after with Reuther that included cost-of-living adjustments, company-paid health care and a pension plan.

Dubbed “The Treaty of Detroit” by Fortune magazine, it was a landmark agreement in U.S. labor relations in the postwar period.

Over 400,000 picket GM, 1970

The UAW negotiations and extensive strikes following World War II helped propel autoworkers into the middle class. The eased relations between labor and management saw a two-decade lull in major autoworker strikes.

In 1970, however, workers went on strike again after GM demanded they pay for increases in health-care premiums.

For 67 days, over 400,000 union members walked off the job. The automaker lost nearly $1 billion in profit, eventually agreeing to increased wages, pensions and a right to retire after 30 years, another landmark win for the union.

Financial crisis strike, 2007-08

By 2007, UAW’s membership had significantly decreased, limiting its sway with the automakers. Still, over 70,000 members walked out for more than two days in 2007 over demands for job security.

But with GM facing its own losses during the heart of the global recession, the union’s first strike in almost four decades yielded scarce results. In an effort to keep the companies from going bankrupt in 2008, the UAW agreed to a number of concessions, including sacrificing the companies’ financing of health care for retirees and job security provisions.

Most recent strike, 2019

The most recent strike by autoworkers came in 2019, when 46,000 members launched a strike of GM for over a month, leading to a four-year contract with pay increases and commitments from the automaker to invest in U.S. factories.

Closures of plants rallied some members, although the strike was officially over pay, job security and benefits.

The settlement included a signing bonus of $11,000 for union members for agreeing to the new contract.